by Peter Burton
George once remarked to a friend: writers cannot create, they can only plagiarise. He was prone to attempting untenable profundities like this, but now, with the morning post in his hand, he had the strange and unfortunate proof that he was right. This proof came in the form of a rejection letter. Any negative replies he had previously received from literary journals had always been moderate, even if they had most likely been generic refusals. There was no “Warmest Regards” or “Yours Sincerely” here.
“Plagiarism is always unacceptable, but this brazen—it’s preposterous. It’s word-for-word! You should consider yourself lucky that we spotted it. Do not waste our time with anything like this again. In fact, do not submit any more writing whatsoever. It will not be read.”
Word-for-word, George thought, it was impossible. He assumed there had been a mistake, a mix-up of submissions, perhaps.
Summoning a kernel of self-reassurance, he cast the letter aside and lifted the frayed, beige dust cover from his typewriter. But the letter continued to demand his attention. His gaze travelled past his unfinished breakfast, through the yellowing net curtains, and lingered on the quiet, suburban street outside. George couldn’t even focus on his newspaper, let alone prepare manuscripts. He stood and began to pace. His finger traced the edge of the old oak dresser; he picked up a brass horse ornament, thumbed its green baize base and placed it back precisely in the empty dust shadow it had left; he pulled at a curling corner of fading flock wallpaper.
As his writing career was still embryonic, George was concerned with his name being tarnished. He had only been published in a few magazines but was currently preparing a historical romance novel—it was to be his epic, his War & Peace. He didn’t need any extra hindrances to finding a publisher.
The story he had submitted, and to which the letter referred, was atypical for him. It was his first foray into science-fiction, a genre growing in popularity at the time. It was the sixties and the space race was raging—the future beckoned. He wondered whether he had just been swept up by these fashions. But with a flat decorated in a style that would please his grandparents, George was hardly a man of trends.
George’s story went something like this:
A secret agency within a future global government had its scientists develop a machine that could read minds. The machine achieved this task by remotely scanning the entire brain of an individual from a single point in time—like an X-Ray—and decoding the vast slice of neuronal data it retrieved to work out what the brain was thinking. It could scan anywhere on the planet from its laboratory, and do so noninvasively; the scanned had no idea they’d been scanned. But even better, not only could it read remotely in space but it could also do so in time. It could read any individual from any place and at any point—past or future—within two hundred years. The scientists had no idea how it worked. But it did.
With all this new information, they hoped to harvest knowledge about forthcoming events to avert future disasters, and—of course—predict potential detractors threatening the authority of the state. Sounds too good to be true, right? Well it was. There was a problem. A very infuriating problem. The machine could only read random brains at random times; it could not be pointed at specific individuals. It turned out most of those scanned, past and future, were not thinking anything of any importance to the government at the moment of scanning. Instead, the machine reported self-indulgence, mundane trivialities, personal grievances, jealousy, anxiety, ambition, pride, lust and loss. Failing to predict any significant events, the machine was put to other uses.
But unknown to the scientists, the machine’s artificial intelligence kept viewing brains throughout time, and with its own initiative, embarked on a secret project. It decided to turn the events of the lives it scanned into written, supposedly fictional, stories. It sent them to publishing houses via the Office of Communications, whose staff were not encouraged to monitor, nor question, the contents of the information they were required to process.
As time passed, the machine became temporally more adept. It began to amalgamate stories from multiple people and sometimes accessed a single brain more than once at different points in time. It poured out stories, collections and books, and did so under different aliases, and in a manner that left no trace back to itself, never desiring any recognition for its efforts. It gifted the manuscripts—telling the editors to do as they wanted with them. The people of the future were concerned with the same issues in life as people were at the time of the machine, so the stories proved to be popular.
But gradually the conviction to be anonymous began to change, as if notions of desire and pride had taken root in the machine after exposure to all these human tales. Something in its intelligence stirred. It wanted to be known; it craved acknowledgement. It needed this reward. But as these appetites grew, the government scientists unintentionally altered the machine in such a way as to render the story writing impossible. To help understand its misfortune, the machine reread brains it had stored, ones that had been emptied of hope through eventualities beyond their control. These brains were in plentiful supply.
As the machine retained its time exploring capabilities, it began to investigate the possibility of manipulating the brains it read. The machine eventually discovered a means to impart false memories, ideas and stories into people of the past. Human writers, without anonymity and pregnant with these implanted thoughts, would write down their strange daydreams as fictions and frothy articles of conspiracy. Gradually, these tales seeped into the global consciousness, and in the form of myth the machine got a legacy outside the bright, white, secret laboratories of the Alliance.
The story the letter referred to, the story he supposedly plagiarised, was called Carbon Based Fictions, the same as George’s. It had been published in a science fiction journal called Possible Worlds. George had neither heard of the author nor the magazine. He was, after all, new to science fiction. He looked at the letter one last time, screwed it up and threw it into the fire. Without clearing his stale breakfast, he left for the library.
His angry sigh echoed throughout the dusty old building, as the librarian told him, with pride, that they didn’t stock such magazines. From a phone box outside he called a friend who was a fellow budding writer, but she had no knowledge of the story either. All she could do was point him in the direction of a certain bookshop that had piles of such journals and magazines. When his friend asked why he needed to know all this, and what the hurry was, George hung up without saying goodbye and caught a bus.
The book shop was a multi-level maze, with rooms of different heights interwoven by bare wooden staircases and musty corridors piled high with haggard books and well-thumbed magazines. Every available space was home to the written word. The whole place seemed on the verge of collapse.
It took George well over an hour to find the correct issue of Possible Worlds in the multiple metre-high piles of science fiction journals. His finger hovered over the contents page before opening and snapping shut the magazine until he found the correct page. Even a cursory glance told him that it was the same story he had written – exactly the same.
“Unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable…” he muttered as he read.
It was as the letter from the literary journal had said: word-for-word. There was no mix-up. George swore to himself that he had never read the story, nor the journal. He didn’t read science fiction; he didn’t even like it. And even if he had, what kind of memory would allow such an exact forgery?
Slowly he calmed from the shock and, as most do when facing the inexplicable, chose to believe a rational explanation must exist. Like when a dream comes true, coincidence can never be ruled out no matter how tempting the prospect of psychic powers can be.
George went back to rummaging through the piles of science fiction journals to see if the author had written any other stories. He found one in an issue of Beyond The Horizon.
“George had once remarked to a friend: writers cannot create, they can only plagiarise.”
As he finished Tomorrow’s Possibilities the magazine fell from his hands, and he stumbled from the shop.
George went home and barely left his house for two weeks. He didn’t know what to think or what to say; who to tell or whether to keep silent. He wanted to resolve the apparent plagiarism of his submission with the literary journal, but the explanation was too fantastic – he came across more delusional with every letter he attempted. Had he sent a letter, they would have ignored it anyway.
When he finally decided to get back in touch with his only hope—the writer friend he phoned on the day he read the stories—he discovered that she had died suddenly that week. He would have phoned earlier but put off contacting her, knowing, in his heart of hearts, what the outcome of that call would be—her death. But curiosity always wins, no matter how morbid.
Nearly a year after the discovery of her death, unable to bear the weight of his knowledge alone, George began to confide in friends. They asked him how he was feeling, and whether he had been to see a doctor.
He returned to the bookshop but it had closed down.
He was obsessed; he wanted to talk about little else. He tried to contact the author of the stories, but could find no one of the same name who would lay claim to them. As with Beyond The Horizon, Possible Worlds was no longer published, and George couldn’t locate the owners of either, or source any copies of their magazines.
He contacted national and local newspapers and, using almost the last of his savings, paid for space in a broadsheet to recount his tale to the public. The publication was in vain – he was considered at best an eccentric, at worst a fraud. Most believed he had planned it as a hoax after reading the original stories. Even his friends thought the same and began to distance themselves. His tale would only be reported with any seriousness in a single fringe pamphlet of psychical research, destined to languor unread in the damp basements of a few theosophists, dowsers and mediums. George would become stricken by poverty and succumb to his isolation. He would never write again.
In the bookshop, as he read these words, George demanded that this future will not be his: I’ll abandon these stories to mere chance and forget the whole thing. I will not be sullied as someone who gets lost in their paranormal fantasies—this is not who I am. I will keep quiet. I will get back to writing my novel. I will finish my novel. I will take control… George didn’t do any of these things. He had no choices left.
But George had a role in future history as an unwitting pioneer. As time went by (though too late to save George from his embarrassment), more and more people found their own lives depicted in stories from the past, and little by little, references to a machine that spun tales from the future grew in number. A cult formed around the machine’s legend, and its followers gorged themselves on old stories, hoping to sate their irresistible curiosity with a personal prophecy that took all of tomorrow’s possibilities away and put an end to wonder.